Kmart – Gone but not forgotten

I experienced a first yesterday.  I had to park in the back of the parking lot in order to get into our local Kmart.

Although I am not a what I would call a regular shopper, Kmart has been my retail store of choice over some of the other alternatives in the area.  It’s easy to get into and out of, the selection is sufficient while not overwhelming like other big box retail stores, and until yesterday, I could always land a parking spot in the first or second row.

Yesterday wasn’t even a planned trip.  My wife and I passed the “store closing” sign on our way back from a hike and decided that the fact that we were slightly muddy, significantly sweaty, and greatly disheveled might work to our advantage in a store cram-packed with customers racing to find the best close-out deals.

We indeed found lots of deals, and the level of customer excitement in the store was extreme.  Toys were 45% off, kitchen ware 20% – even the shelving and fixtures were for sale.  I purchased 3 used power strips for $4 each and smiled as I walked by the brand-new ones normally, $12.99 and only marked down by 40%.  I congratulated myself on being a savvy shopper.

Everybody in the store seemed elated.  Well, except some of the staff.  As I walked around the aisles with a buggy increasing in weight and decreasing in available space, my awareness of the polarity between the staff and the patrons grew.

Elated consumers were parading around with full buggies of heavily discounted merchandise, while a rather defeated staff worked methodically to reorganize, stack, and inventory everything left on the shelves in preparation for the next price adjustment handed down from corporate.  The emotion on their faces gave me pause to reflect on more than the bargains.

I moved to Sevier County in 1984 at the tender age of 14.  This was 3 years after Sevierville’s Kmart opened and more than a decade after the Kmart in Morristown had opened, which had been my family’s retail store of choice my entire life up to that point.  Seeing a Kmart in my new hometown brought me a sense of familiarity, and it quickly became our go-to retail store in our new community.

A weight began to grow in my heart as well as my buggy, and I mostly began to feel sad.

I’d have happily put everything in my buggy back on the shelf just to know that Kmart would remain open and be available for me to walk the aisles and continue to reminisce in the future.

Some of my best youthful memories happened at Kmart.  I have previously written a column about my beloved Trax tennis shoes and how long and hard I labored and pleaded with my father before he eventually caved in and bought me those “expensive tennis shoes.”  For a brief season in second grade, I was one of the cool kids, and it was entirely thanks to Kmart.  I could also run faster with them, on but that is a topic for another day.

But my fond recollections go beyond that.

There were the lazy summer days with Mom, making a stop at Kmart just to “browse” on the way back from the weekly library trip.  These excursions ingrained in me vivid recollections of the “attention Kmart shoppers…” announcements when people actually did stop and give the announcer their attention, the “Makin’ tracks in Trax” song which I can sing to this day and, of course, the iconic Blue Light Special where a flashing blue light in a particular section of the store signified a short-term discount on everything in that immediate area.  It was marketing ingenuity.

At Kmart, I bought my first computer, a Commodore Vic-20, with my own yard-mowing money.

At Kmart, still suffering the after-effects of a dental procedure, I walked straight into the glass door.  I can still hear the laughter of Mom and my siblings recounting the event to Pop at the dinner table that night.

At Kmart, I learned other lessons.  In my impressionable youth, I believed that if you sat in your car with it running too long, you would die from carbon-monoxide poisoning.  One afternoon while leaving Kmart, I spotted a car running with a man sleeping inside behind the wheel while his wife shopped.  I know now that he was sleeping, but back then, I was convinced he was dead.  Being a responsible child, I immediately alerted my father that there was a dead man in the car next to us, setting off a series of events that only after decades can I enjoy with as much laughter as my father and the poor sleep-deprived man did that day.

It is as if every single impactful thing in my youth somehow is tied to the existence of Kmart.  My first basketball goal.  My first BB gun.  The crib for my first-born child.  For all of these things, I distinctly remember the exact moment of purchase, and somehow the bargain 15” sauce pan and wicker clothes basket in my buggy yesterday just don’t compensate for the loss of our community fixture.

Farewell, dear Kmart, you will be missed.  The closing of your doors represents not only the end of an era in our community, but closes a chapter of history in our individual lives as well.

© Michael L. Collins



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